One of the jobs of Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, is recruiting Democratic legislative candidates for the state House of Representatives — a process that the House Majority Leader says is getting more challenging.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons (Long); Jeff Potter/Commons file photo (Vermont State House)
One of the jobs of Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, is recruiting Democratic legislative candidates for the state House of Representatives — a process that the House Majority Leader says is getting more challenging.

The making of a candidate

House Majority Leader Emily Long talks about what it takes to run for the Legislature — and the difficulties in finding people who are willing and able to do so

NEWFANE-Primary season is upon us. But how many people know what it takes to put their name out there on a lawn sign?

It might surprise some to know that recruiting candidates for the House of Representatives is part of the job of the House majority and minority leaders.

Rep. Emily Long, of Newfane, the House Majority Leader, is leading the effort to introduce Democrats into the state political pipeline. Her Republican counterpart, House Minority Leader Patricia McCoy, of Poultney, has the same job.

"We all have the responsibility to make sure that we have candidates, putting in their names and running for positions," Long said.

There will be much turnover in the Legislature this next year. Two longstanding stalwarts - Sen. Dick Mazza of Colchester and Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington - have died, and many more have retired.

Even Windham County, normally a bastion of incumbency, is seeing unusual turnover this year.

Retiring from the House are Reps. Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro (Windham-9), Sara Coffey of Guilford (Windham-1), and Tristan Roberts of Halifax (Windham-6), all Democrats. Also retiring is independent Kelly Pajala of Londonderry.

Chris Morrow, who once owned Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, is running as an independent for Pajala's seat, and Emily Carris-Duncan is doing the same for the seat left open by Roberts.

Primary races are underway for the seats of Coffey (Zon Eastes versus Jason Herron) and Toleno (David Gartenstein versus Ian Goodnow).

Added to that, District 7 is seeing a Democratic primary race between incumbent Rep. Emilie Kornheiser and farmer Amanda Ellis-Thurber.

Long did not have to recruit people for the vacant Windham seats.

"But I did speak to most of them, either when they were contemplating whether to run or after they had made the decision to run," Long said.

She believes that "part of a caucus leader's job is to share what a great privilege and honor it is to serve in the Legislature."

"It is also my job to candidly answer the many questions prospective candidates have about the legislative role, including the winter months spent away from families and jobs, as well as the time and financial commitment Vermonters must make year round in order to fully serve in this increasingly demanding role," she said.

Although Long has other duties, she works at her recruitment job all year long. And she is finding it ever more difficult to recruit candidates.

"I can only speculate why it seems more difficult this year to get people to commit to running for the Legislature," Long said. "But I think probably national politics plays a role. I think that a lot of people are soured to this kind of job in many ways."

People are tired of politics, she says. "I get it. I feel it. Everybody does."

It might be uncomfortable for a person to suddenly experience conflict, Long said.

"You know, it's hard for me to say this, because I don't feel very political, but we are in a political role," she said. "And it's hard sometimes when the rhetoric around politics is so negative. It doesn't make people feel comfortable putting themselves into that position."

More than she used to, she hears people say, "Why would I ever want to be a politician? It's a thankless job."

Sacrifices required

Financial realities are also a deterrent.

"With inflation and interest rates being so high, it's making it harder and harder for people to serve in the Legislature," Long said.

"We don't get benefits," she continued. "We don't get health insurance. For someone whose job provides their health insurance, losing that is just too much, especially if you have a family."

Recent attempts to raise legislative pay have failed, Long pointed out.

"It'll probably come up again," she said. "At least, could we allow legislators access to the state employees health insurance? After all, we are state employees."

Being a legislator is generally a step up or a step down for a family's finances.

Legislators earn $811.68 a week during the session, which usually lasts about five months. Since the Legislature is off on Mondays, that means an elected official needs to square it with their employer to be away from their jobs for at least four days a week for five months.

In the name of having a citizen Legislature, Vermont will not allow someone to be fired from their job just because they win an election.

"We want citizens to be able to serve," Long said. "So there's a statute that says if you serve, you won't lose your job; I'll say it that way."

But, she warned, "you will not be guaranteed that you'll have the same job when you come back."

"And it's on an individual basis as to whether the company that you work for will allow you to leave and still have health insurance," Long warned. "It depends on who your employer is."

Since most legislators from Windham County choose not to commute to Montpelier every day, they can also take advantage of $134 a night allowed for lodging and $69 a day for meals.

Self-employed people might find it easier to serve, Long said, because they can tailor their schedules to fit their hours. Some jobs, like farming, slow down in the wintertime. And teachers who are legislators can continue to teach if they wrap their schedules around their free Mondays.

"Some businesses see it as a real asset to have a person who serves in the Legislature working for them," Long said. "Still, it isn't easy for any business to have an employee gone four days a week for 5½ months of the year."

Toleno, for example, is leaving the Legislature after 12 years for a well-paying job that will ensure his family's financial future. He does not think legislators are paid enough.

"It's one of the reasons why I've supported efforts to change legislative compensation and benefits," he told The Commons when he announced his retirement.

"I think we end up hurting a lot of people, especially if they're younger than retirement age," Toleno said. "In order to serve, it often comes at the sacrifice of career and family. And that just doesn't make any sense."

Toleno added that the pay scale "doesn't help Vermont get the best people in Montpelier who represent the full range of Vermonters and their lived experiences."

No days off

Being a legislator is a difficult job, Long said.

"It's hard work with a lot of disappointment," Long said. "You can work really hard on a bill that doesn't make it - especially when you're working on something for your communities that they deserve."

Legislators don't stop being legislators after the five months in Montpelier are completed.

"You work year-round," Long said. "You need to be there for your community and your constituents. That's our job. We have to represent them. And at times, our constituents need us to help them navigate the challenges that they're dealing with."

A constituent might need help reaching the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example.

"There's a million reasons why people get ahold of us," Long said. "It's also that we're asked to go to many different events."

She said she was "honored to be invited" to a recent ceremony at Valley Cares, "when a resident there received a military award from the French government" ["Highest honors: Townshend veteran Richard Jackson, 100, will receive the Légion d'Honneur for his service in World War II," News, May 29].

"I represent Townshend," Long said. "I wouldn't miss that for the world."

If a person can afford it, being a legislator offers a widening, deepening, enriching, and broadening experience, Long said.

"When you're a legislator, you make a ton of contacts that you would have never had in your community had you not been a candidate and run for election or served in the Legislature," Long said. "So you get a much broader perspective of your district as a legislator than you ever would have as a citizen."

Still, running for office is hard, Long said. There's at least a 1-in-2 chance that a candidate will face an overwhelming rejection at the ballot box.

"You weed out an awful lot of people who would be perfect legislators," Long said.

Always looking ahead

For Long, recruitment doesn't stop when a candidate wins an election.

"One of the first things I tell candidates is that you should always have somebody in mind who would take over for you or run for your position if you choose not to run again," Long said.

"This is true for anyone. Even if you're serving in the Legislature and you think you're going to be there for the next 10 years, you still should have somebody in mind, because I have seen so many times where life takes over people's lives," she added.

Roberts, for example, is leaving because he and his fiancée are having a baby.

"So I always encourage people to have in mind somebody who might be willing to have a conversation about whether they would want to run," Long said. "So that's a start to everything as far as recruitment goes. It starts there."

Long said she sometimes meets people and immediately thinks, "Oh, she'd be great!" But there is no formal pitch.

"It's really about an individual," Long said. "Mostly it's a matter of conversation. If you're approaching somebody who's never considered it before, almost every single time, people say 'I can't believe I'm being asked' or 'I've never thought of myself that way.'

"It happened to me when I was approached to run," she said.

Long was approached by former Rep. Richard Marek when he decided to retire after six terms. He called and asked whether she was interested in taking over his seat. She said she didn't know if she was the first person he called, or the fifth.

But it didn't matter.

"I remember thinking, 'Me?,'" Long said. "I think most people think that, too."

At the time, Long was president of the Vermont School Boards Association, and part of her job was testifying in front of the Legislature. So she was familiar with the State House, she thought.

"But in retrospect, I knew nothing," she said. "I thought I knew a lot about it."

But she did know how the Legislature worked.

"I knew how bills were drafted and how they were discussed and debated and voted on. Because I played a role in that," she said. "So it wasn't surprising that that I was asked, and I was still surprised."

Tough choices

Making the decision to run is difficult.

"It doesn't matter where you're coming from or who you are," Long said. "There are some people, on a rare occasion, who have been thinking about it for years. Then suddenly, they decide they want to run."

Then there are others who think about it only when someone announces their retirement, she said.

"Then there's people like me who never would have thought about running for the Legislature, because I was busy doing other things," Long said.

It is important to have a broad representation of Vermonters in the Legislature, Long said. And Covid may have made serving easier.

The Legislature ran on Zoom for much of the pandemic. For a few years, lawmakers could serve from their living rooms.

Now, the Legislature is back to meeting in person at the State House, but some innovations from the time of the pandemic still exist.

"Today, you can serve remotely when you're sick," Long said. "You can actually participate in committee meetings via Zoom now. I can see the room, raise my hand just like anybody else in the room, and participate in the conversation. It's not the same as if I was in the room, but I can participate the same as if I was.

"Say you've got Covid, and your fever's really high and you're really sick. You can't participate that day. But you don't have to miss it. And you can go back and listen to it the next day when you're feeling a little better, because it's been livestreamed and recorded."

This is a huge advantage not only for legislators but for Vermonters in general, Long said. In the name of transparency, all committee meetings are now streamed and recorded.

"I strongly support that transparency," Long said.

But there are limits.

"You cannot participate in the House as an active legislator on the floor," she said.

Why? "We made a decision in the Rules Committee that when you are debating, everybody should be able to participate," Long continued. "But once we're in the chamber where we're having debate on a bill, we want people to be in the room participating. So we don't allow voting or participation via Zoom on the floor."

Legislators are not required to live in Montpelier for the session, Long said.

"My drive is two hours, right?" she said. "So for me to commute four hours a day would be impossible. So I have to rent. I've been lucky enough to have found a house that I can rent and share with two other legislators. That's what we do in the wintertime."

Some legislators, she said, get a hotel room. Others who live "marginally far away, maybe 45 minutes away, go home one or two days a week. They don't rent a house for the winter. They just get a room."

"But it's different for everybody," Long said. "Everybody has to make their own decisions on how they handle that."

Most people decide to run to give back something to their communities, she said.

"That's the main reason, I think," Long said. "It's the reason I ran."

Also, she "wanted to be able to represent my community with a strong voice in Montpelier as we are thinking about our future and passing laws to support Vermonters and their needs."

That is also the reason most people continue to serve, Long said.

"It's a dynamic job," Long said. "It's very intense, because we do a lot of work in a short period of time. If you like that kind of an intense environment, it fits real well for you."

That environment works well with extroverts, Long said, but she also finds many introverts who would make good legislators.

"Introverts find themselves put into a situation where you have to be an extrovert," she said.

"You're operating every moment of every day when you're in Montpelier during session," Long said.

That challenge might not be for everyone.

"But it's very rewarding when you worked really hard to represent your community and end up passing some legislation that is going to make a positive impact on people's lives," she said.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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